In Love With Red: iconic film moments. 2: Coppola’s ‘Dracula’

Red is the theme as Winona’s Mina goes mouth-to-mouth with Gary’s Count in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Frances Ford Coppola’s film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and what an indigestible mouthful the title is), is a mixed bag. Fatally compromised by most of the leading players and by Coppola’s direction of them, it remains a feast ravishing on the eye but agonising on the ear. The colour is gorgeous throughout, the costume designs by Eiko Ishioka lending much of the visionary strangeness that stays in the mind long after viewing. Hers are the sumptuous reds underlying the central themes of blood and desire. But the actors, no matter how imaginatively dressed, fail to hold everything together. They are its fatal weakness. So much so that there have been times when re-watching it, I’ve mentally turned it into a silent movie accompanied by music and a few text cards. Now that would be a good film. As things stand, we have to endure the director’s endless gaffs.

Winona Ryder, tiresomely arch and weighed down with ennui as Mina, struck lucky when the attention of critics was diverted from her performance by Keanu Reeves… and the least said about him the better… though her accent, seemingly learned from watching too many British films of the 40s, is almost as irritating as his. In the book Mina is a school teacher, but for Winona the lure of gorgeous costumes clearly clouded her judgement of the character, and she’s all gussied up like a Paris fashion-plate from start to finish, thanks to Eiko Ishioka’s shimmering designs. She preens and pouts her way through the proceedings, looking a good deal too pleased with herself. She brought the project to Coppola, and so had a vested interest in it, as well as star-power, but a school mistress she ain’t!

Anthony Hopkins storms and blusters like a bad actor from a Victorian Drury Lane pantomime, while his co-players stand around looking dumbstruck by his antics. (Who would not?) It’s a performance that unbalances everything in its orbit.

But the worst of all the director’s offences, is the bum-steer Coppola gives to Sadie Frost, cast as the ‘virginal’ Lucy Westenra. The whole heart of the tragedy should be Lucy’s corruption by the ‘undead’, but here she’s leery with desire from the get-go.

Instead of moving from the pure to the fatally tainted, Frost slams her foot on the accelerator, moving from being sexually predatory before her run-in with Dracula, to a heated frenzy of desire-turned-to-the-bad after it. There are no nuances and no losses. There can be no tragic theft, because there’s no innocence to steal. It’s a horrible experience watching Frost salaciously writhing on her bed in a peachy-ginger fright-wig, urged to excess by whoever was directing her off-camera. (It’s said that Coppola was uncomfortable discussing sexual desire with such a young actor, and relinquished the task to others.) It’s not just that this isn’t how Lucy is presented in the novel, but it makes no emotional sense within the narrative of the film. It plonks her in the role of those endlessly sexualised cheerleaders in slasher movies, who ‘put out’ for soccer jocks, and then get punished for doing so by men in masks with knives and hatchets.

In the middle of all this, Gary Oldman brings a genuinely interesting twist to the role of Dracula, and he has the acting muscle to pull it off. In the novel Stoker has Jonathan Harker describe the Count as an old man, “cruel looking”, with an “extraordinary pallor”. While Oldman’s youthful incarnation owes almost nothing to the author, he’s nevertheless cinematically engaging. When he arrives in London, a dandyish John Lennon lookalike, down to the shoulder-length hair and and wire-framed blue-tinted spectacles, his is an arresting and darkly romantic presence.

Moreover he’s been set down in the fin-de siecle that birthed cinema, right at the moment the art of illusion was being wrested away from the stage magicians who’d held sway before the Lumiére brothers brought about the entertainment revolution that would change the way audiences viewed the world. Coppola clearly relished the notion of the old European ‘supernatural’ order finding itself able to hide in plain sight, because people were learning to mistrust their own eyes. Well, just ponder on it for a moment. These days, were you to spot a dinosaur marching through your local shopping precinct, you wouldn’t think ‘Oh-my-gosh-a-prehistoric-creature!’. More like ‘Oh, a puppet!’, while casting your eye round for the camera crew.

The Count’s first appearance at the time Harker visits him in Transylvania, is a knockout. It’s eerie and compelling, and earns the film’s place as the second of my In Love With Red series of posts. This Count Dracula, ancient, reptilian and ornately coiffed in the style of the eighteenth century, has a whiff of embalming fluid about him, underlined by his slightly puffy skin. He crawls, spider-like, on ceilings, a trick Coppola borrows from Japanese ghost films.

Above: the Count furtively gets licky with Harker’s blood-slicked razor. House-guests beware!

The actor’s movement is stylised, his pointy-nailed hands a nod to Max Schreck in the silent film, Nosferatu. The Count’s shadow has an independent existence. (Nice touch.) He seems more animated corpse than man, his physical corruption in contrast to the searing vibrancy of his heavily embroidered crimson gown. It’s as though the garment is the blood reservoir of the parasite who wears it. He’s become a bloated tick so replete that he smears a bloody trail in his wake.

Coppola was greatly inspired by Jean Cocteau’s film of La Belle et la Bête, made in 1946 on a tiny budget and using largely practical and in-camera special effects. He showed images from the film to his crew to help them understand what he was aiming for. In imitation of Cocteau’s simple special effects, Coppola eschewed post-production ‘opticals’ for Dracula, opting instead either for practical effects created on set during the filming, or the in-camera effects of double exposure. He ran sections of film backwards to render strange the vampire-Lucy’s descent to her tomb. He made extensive use of models, puppets and forced perspectives throughout, and all this, coupled with the lush design and cinematography, lends the production a theatricality that is more akin to grand opera. Dracula’s three brides manifest out of the dishevelled bed-sheets, thanks to the technique Cocteau devised for Josette Day’s Belle to pass through a wall, and it’s weirder… and more elegant… than any optical jiggery-pokery.

It’s for the operatic vision that the film remains with me, despite its faults. All credit to Copplola’s team for this, not least the production designer, Thomas E. Sanders.